According to Carl Jung, ‘‘The cinema makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion and desire which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life’’. Others say that cinema helps us develop a better understanding of society and allows us to get to know other cultures. To a great extent, Bollywood has helped us to do so by shaping the image of multicultural India -as we know it today- as well as addressing its political issues. The violence against religious minorities is one of the main social problems in India, and it is indeed reflected in Aparna Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer: while attempting to construct the national identity of the country, the diversity of cultures and religions has led to violent episodes driving a wedge between the different classes and religious groups.
In the opening scene of the movie, Meenakshi Iyer, a conservative Tamil Iyer Brahmin who travels with her son, and Raja Chowdhury, a liberal Muslim, embark on a bus journey along with other people with a very different cultural backgrounds - Hindus, Muslims, and Jews ish are heading to the S south of India. While boarding the bus, the mix of people speaking different languages and supporting different belief systems show the multicultural diversity of Indian society as a way of life. However, the different cultural backgrounds have not always had a positive impact on society, but rather it has been a difficulty for the coexistence of many different cultures. As a result of that, building a national identity has never been an easy-to-do task in India. While Hinduism is the most popular religion in the country, religious minorities are suffering from sectarian violence, being fully excluded from society. Unfortunately, the violence against Muslims has increased since Hindu nationalism is rising in the country. But the Hindu-Muslim conflict already existed in ancient India. Many scholars believe that the cause of the conflict lies in the Western influence: the British, under the premise Divide et impera, took control of the country by generating tensions between Muslims and Hindus and stating that the Muslims were the ones to blame for the decline of the country. This a paraphrase (Rimoldi, 8-11). Nowadays, the tension between Muslims and Hindus is escalating keeps growing. This tension is reflected in Aparna Sen’s film when Meenakshi Iyer gets upset when Raja Chowdhury reveals his true identity as a Muslim. Iyer also shows rejection for having drunk from his water bottle, which for Hindus is something sacred, ‘in the Hindu civilization, water is connected with an important divinity (Parpola,178). Tensions between Muslims and Hindus reappear in the scene where a group of Hindu extremists enters the bus in search of Muslims by asking their identities and checking if they are circumcised, since ‘circumcision is officially embraced by the Islamic community’ (Kheirabadi, 89). Furthermore, the representation of Jews in the film is also interesting. They fall under the umbrella of disloyalty and inhumanness when one of the passengers, afraid of being killed by the Hindu extremists, gives the elderly Muslim couple away.
On the other hand, the same as occurs with religion, caste has gone through an identity-building process overdetermined by considerations of power (Jaffrelot, 80). In India, according to Hinduism, castes divide society into different classes: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and Harijan. On the one hand, the Brahmins, the highest caste, are known to be ‘engaged in intellectual pursuits’ (Ellis, 210); on the other, the lowest case, Harijan, is not known to have a scholastic tradition as the Brahmin has’ (Ellis, 205). In Aparna Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Meenakshi belong s to the Brahmin: she comes from an orthodox, conservative, and educated family. However, throughout the movie, Iyer is breaking down the stereotypes of a Brahmin woman. Despite her rejecting Raja Chowdhury, a Muslim wildlife photographer, she ends up accepting the existence of another religion. This is reflected in the scene when the Hindu mobs enter the bus and Iyer saves Raja’s life by pretending to be his wife. Later on in the bungalow, the tension between the individuals builds up again. Because of her religious beliefs, Meenakshi is opposed to sharing the room with Raja as well as eating non-vegetarian food, for the Brahmin do not eat meat. ‘Implicitly this also constitutes a denial of the complementary in the relationship between Brahmins and lower castes. By analogy with their vegetarian deity, the Brahmins do not see themselves as being involved in a dependent, complementary relationship with those who are hierarchically inferior to them.’ (Fitzgerald, pg. 154). Again, she seems to make a distinction between classes while being influenced by prejudices. However, with the second violent incident in which she witnesses a murder in the shelter, Meenakshi’s prejudices fade away: Raja comforts her and takes care of her as they spend the night together. Two fundamental aspects emerge from Meenakshi’s character. On the one hand, Iyer has learned to respect other people regardless of their religious beliefs. On the other, it shows the differences within religions -despite supporting Hinduism, Iyer appears to be more tolerant than the radical sector by showing her more human side.
To conclude, Aparna Sen’s movie explores the ethnic and religious conflict in India which permits us to question the true nature of the Hindu-Muslim conflict. In an attempt to dominate ideologically Indian society, Hindu fundamentalists take for granted that Muslims should be annihilated for not holding their same beliefs. But more importantly, Aparna Sen gives a voice to that part of society who only wishes to live in peace, despite their different religious beliefs. Hopefully, there will be more Meenakshi Iyers so that we do not need the cinema, as Carl Jung says, to experience other cultures, and we could just discover them for ourselves without danger.